\Since January 29, dozens of journalists in Bangladesh have claimed, in their social media profiles, that they are spies.
Holding placards bearing the #আমিগুপ্তচর hashtag (pronounced “Ami Guptochor”, and meaning “#IAmaSpy” in the Bengali language) they are speaking out against a newly proposed law that would criminalize key research practices of investigative journalists.
The 2018 Digital Security Act, still in draft, is said to target digital crimes. The current draft was approved by the Council of Ministers of Bangladesh government on January 29 and is scheduled to be submitted to the Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament) for approval. The act is expected to be approved without opposition, thanks to the majority held by the ruling Bangladesh Awami League party.
The Act is intended to replace the 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act (amended in 2013), which has drawn much criticism over the past years. The notorious Section 57 of the law prohibits digital messages that can “deteriorate” law and order, “prejudice the image of the state or person,” or “hurt religious beliefs.” For these non-bailable offenses, the punishment is a minimum seven years in prison and a hefty fine. These vague terms paved the way for dozens of journalists and hundreds of bloggers and online activists to be prosecuted for their writings and comments on social media. The Law Minister Anisul Huq promised in July 2017 that Section 57 would be scrapped.
The Section 32 of the proposed act stipulates:
If a person enters any government, semi-government or autonomous institutions illegally, and secretly records any information or document with electronic instruments, it will be considered as an act of espionage and he/she will face 14 years of imprisonment or a fine of BDT 2 million (US$ 24,000) or both.
Many journalists and online activists fear that their investigative work to expose irregularities by government employees and politicians could be regarded as espionage.
Journalist Rozina Islam told BBC Bangla in an interview that the Digital Security Act will make the process of obtaining evidence for news articles very difficult.
What else is inside the 2018 Digital Security Act?
There are 48 sections in the proposed Digital Security Act. The journalists initially reacted to its section 32, which says that unsolicited collection of information from any government, semi-government or autonomous institutions using electronic devices will be defined as digital spying.
There are a number of other sections in this new act that could threaten online free expression and media rights in the country. Section 57 of the soon-to-be-scrapped ICT Act stipulated a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison for offenses such as defamation, hurting religious sentiments, causing deterioration of law and order and instigating against any person or organization. The draft of Digital Security Act splits these offenses into four separate sections with punishment ranging from three to 10 years’ term. Some of the other more striking portions of the law include:
– Section 27: Material in websites or in electronic devices that hurts religious beliefs. The offense is non-bailable and punishment is 5 years imprisonment and BDT 1 million (USD$ 12,000) fine or both.
– Section 28: Publication of false and degrading remarks in media. The offense is bailable and punishment is 3 years imprisonment and BDT 300,000 (USD$ 3,600) fine or both.
– A lifetime prison sentence for spreading negative propaganda against the Liberation War or the Father of the Nation using digital devices
– Authorization for security agencies to search or arrest anyone without any warrant if a police officer believes that an offense under the Act has been committed or there is a possibility of crimes
Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua, an advocate of Supreme Court in Bangladesh says in an interview with Monitor:
The Digital Security Act is an Eyewash. It is section 57 for all intent and purposes. All the provisions have merely been redistributed among other sections. Its approval will ensure that people lose their freedom of speech.
Barua also mentions in an interview with Dhaka Tribune:
Why won’t I be able to record something wrong happening before my eyes? If I try to copy classified government records, we have the Official Secrecy Act for that.